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Recruiting is why the path to a college football championship still runs through South Florida

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How a 95-mile stretch of land helps build, and disrupt, the college football landscape.

Want to improve your team and contend for championships? Recruiting South Florida is an necessary step.
State of the U Illustration by Mike Meredith

When building a college football roster, teams want the best talent they can find. They want players who have the ability to impact the game and make the legendary, game-changing plays that echo through the ages. And while there are great players all over the country, you won’t find more of them in one spot than Florida. Specifically, South Florida.

The Hotbed

Where blue chip recruits come from.
Banner Society graphic

As you can see in the graphic above, one of the nation’s “hot spots” for recruiting is South Florida. Furthermore, it’s not just South Florida. There are additional blue-chip players from the other metropolitan areas in the state — Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville — but South Florida’s tri-county area — West Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties — has the highest concentration of elite prospects found anywhere in the country.

While Texas and California have similar numbers of blue-chip recruits annually, both of those states have a much higher population than Florida. Despite the relative lack of population, Florida still routinely has more total blue-chip prospects than any other state.

The overwhelming majority of those blue-chip recruits hail from Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. This 95-ish mile stretch is the most fertile recruiting ground in the country, and teams from all over flock here to find elite players for their programs.

Leading the way for South Florida blue-chip prospects are a vast array of skill position players. Whether it be running back or wide receiver or cornerback or safety, teams routinely look to the tri-county area to recruit the best and most polished athletes to raise the level of their rosters and help make plays on the field for years.

Over the past 10 years, every team that has been dubbed the National Champion has had at least five Floridians on their roster, with eight teams having seven or more. Over the last five years, there are only two Power 5 conference champions — 2016 and 2018 Washington — who did not have a Floridian on the roster, with the rest averaging just over 9.4 Florida natives on the roster per year. That number is slightly inflated due to FSU’s 2014 ACC Championship team having 87 (!!!!) Floridians on the roster, but would be a 6.5 average if we removed them from the list.

Elite players from South Florida are coveted by teams all over the country. Clemson, Ohio State, Texas A&M (now that Jimbo Fisher is there), Penn State, and a host of others have recruiting South Florida as a key component of their recruiting strategy. These efforts are focused mainly on skill guys, but bigger bodies — Offensive Line, Defensive Line, and Linebackers — will be heavily recruited if they’re available. The thing about that, however, is that premium recruits in South Florida at those positions are few and far between. So when there IS an elite lineman or linebacker, the recruiting competition is beyond fierce.

One notable position, arguably the MOST notable position, is one that isn’t usually stocked with blue-chip talent: Quarterback. The answer for that is simple: most of the top athletes move to skill positions at a young age where their athleticism can easily be showcased without the hours of development needed to be a high-caliber QB prospect. But, when there are blue-chip QBs in South Florida, it takes a team with a vision for development and time to wait to get them to campus. Geno Smith, Teddy Bridgewater, and Lamar Jackson are the most well-known examples on this point.

The Evolution of Recruiting

In the past — even as recently as the early 2000s — Miami, Florida, and Florida State had an advantage in the evaluation and recruitment of South Florida players, because their proximity allowed them to see players other teams couldn’t. Those teams could have their coaches at games and practices more often than teams from other, remote locations, and that allowed them to be aware of and recruit South Florida players before other teams knew who the top prospects were. With the proliferation of recruiting websites, social media, recruiting camps, and, most importantly, digital game film/prospect highlights, teams located far away from South Florida can build a connection with a player without having to be physically present.

Thanks to those changes, teams from all over the country have been able to get involved in recruiting players from South Florida. The added competition for elite prospects has led to several electing to leave the State, which has resulted in a talent drain from Florida’s Big 3 teams, and raised the level of talent on teams around the country.

The other big factor in helping other teams get South Floridians on their rosters was the reduction in scholarships the NCAA enacted for the 1995 season. Whereas teams had 95 scholarship slots in 1992, that number dropped to 85 by the 1995 season. That meant that Miami, Florida, and Florida State had 30 fewer scholarship slots on their rosters. So, up to 30 very talented players would have to find a school elsewhere. Teams from all over the country jumped at the chance to get some of the best players in the country to join their rosters.

Like many others, Football is a copycat sport. Teams see what other teams are doing successfully, then they adopt those practices, either in whole or in part. In terms of recruiting and roster building, that practice is focusing a substantial amount of the recruiting budget and resources toward South Florida.

Changing the Game

There are a handful of coaches who specialize in recruiting the South Florida area. Those coaches are usually a little younger than some of their counterparts, and many are South Florida natives themselves. They were themselves recruited by coaches elsewhere, and now stand as the ones doing the recruiting. Guys like Penn State Running Backs coach JaJuan Seider and South Carolina Cornerbacks coach Travaris “T-Rob” Robinson and Florida Cornerbacks coach Corey Bell, and UCF Defensive Coordinator Randy Shannon have all been key members on multiple staffs for their South Florida recruiting acumen.

A West Palm Beach native from Belle Glade, Seider was a notorious South Florida recruiter for many years at West Virginia. He helped the Mountaineers get many players from the Sunshine State, including Noel Devine, Geno Smith, and Stedman Bailey, among many others. He’s now doing the same for Penn State, and has already made positive in-roads for the Nittany Lions after just 1 recruiting cycle.

Miami natives Robinson, Bell, and Shannon have all worked at various schools in and out of the State of Florida, and their connection to their hometown has helped them build careers as some of the best and most successful South Florida recruiters anywhere.

Recruiting South Florida isn’t just for assistants. Alabama coach Nick Saban and former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer are well known for their ability to get top players from the Sunshine State to their schools. In the case of Saban, Alabama is a recruiting machine, with the allure to get nearly any player in America to come to Tuscaloosa. For Meyer, his run of success at Florida made him a household name, so he had an immediate recruiting resume when he got to Ohio State.

Based upon the work of those coaches, and many others, South Florida natives started making their way to Alabama and Georgia and Clemson and USC and South Carolina and Ohio State. And that talent drain came at the direct expense of whichever of Florida’s Big 3 teams was struggling at the time. So when Miami or Florida were struggling to find the success of the previous 20+ years, other teams were the benefactors of getting additional talent on their rosters.

In putting together my 2018 feature The Recruiting Rules, I had a well-known CFB assistant coach tell me the following: “I only go (this far out of State) for All-Americans or 1st round [NFL Draft] picks.” And while that may be true for CFB’s elite programs, other programs look to South Florida as a place to get players to upgrade their roster at nearly every level.

Every year, Miami, Florida and Florida State have to prioritize players on their recruiting boards. And often, a South Florida standout will be lower on their board than the player would like, which opens the door for other teams around the CFB world to swoop in and steal a talented player out of the area. Teams like Wisconsin, Kentucky, South Carolina, and others have made it their primary focus to get the players who are talented enough to play at a P5 school but not the superstars that most elite teams look to headline their roster.

But, it is not just other P5 teams that upgrade their rosters with South Florida talent. There are plenty of 3-star recruits from South Florida who have elite athleticism and skill, but might be 20lbs too light or 3 inches too short. And those players are key targets for mid-major/group of 5 programs year-in and year-out. MAC teams like Akron and Toledo, Sun Belt teams like Appalachian State, and American Conference teams like Cincinnati and Temple augmented the athleticism and speed on their rosters by getting those players from South Florida who others may deem a bit too light or a touch too small.

So, while the number of South Florida players hasn’t changed much over the course of time, their impact has grown across the College Football landscape because more teams have been able to get these coveted athletes to leave their home region and ply their trade elsewhere around the country.

For Florida’s Big 3 teams — Miami, Florida, and Florida State — stopping the trend of South Florida’s best prospects leaving the State to play their College Football is integral to their return to championship contention. To get the most talented players to stay close to home, local teams have to prioritize local recruits. Making the best players feel wanted and needed is a big key toward getting them to stay in-state.

The next, and arguably biggest step, is WINNING. Top players want to play on winning teams, championship caliber teams, with other elite players. Sure, Alabama built a dynasty off their 2008 recruiting class after a 7-6 record in Nick Saban’s inaugural season in Tuscaloosa, but that’s the exception to recruiting success, not the rule. Most teams have to show progress in the form of wins to be able to recruit at a high level, and all 3 of Florida’s major programs need to take that step forward to keep the best players in-state.

South Florida Always Reloads

Helping the situation is the fact that many tier-2 recruits from South Florida, those who are rated as 3-stars by recruiting sites and generally not thought of as “can’t-miss prospects” are more talented than their similarly-rated counterparts across the country. The widely-used anecdotal statement is “a South Florida 3-star would be a 4-star or 5-star elsewhere”. Those players, overlooked and undervalued by most of the CFB elite, step in and elevate the level of talent at schools around the country.

But the real focus here is that top South Florida prospects will continue to dominate CFB both now and in the future. Every year, there’s another 6’3”+ wide receiver with blazing speed and incredible ball skills who every team in the country would love to add to their roster. There’s always another tough, quick, physical running back who can change the game on any given play. There’s always another defensive back with elite skills to affect opposing offenses at the first mistake a QB makes. So the impact of South Florida players will continue to be felt for years to come.

As teams look to upgrade their rosters to compete and contend for championships, they will inevitably look to South Florida for the players to carry them to the next level of success.

If South Florida players are good enough for Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State and Florida State to build recent championship teams, then they’re good enough for any team to try and build their program for success, as well.

Those recruiting battles are always tough, and they might be getting even tougher. But the path to a championship, for Florida’s Big 3, for the nation’s elite, and elsewhere, doesn’t just run through the college football playoff. It runs through South Florida.